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American Hustle
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Quit Your Low-Down Ways"
5 stars

Just before the screening of "American Hustle," the latest film from director David O. Russell, I remarked to a colleague that he was a filmmaker whose overwhelming ambition of late appeared to a desire to become the next Sydney Pollack. By that, I meant that over the course of his last two films, "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook," he had developed into a smooth and efficient creator of slickly-made entertainments with a real flair for getting strong performances out of his actors (those two films alone won three acting Oscars between them and the latter pulled off the rare feat of getting a nominee in each of the four performance categories). At the same time, however, the edgy cinematic style and oftentimes subversive humor that he displayed in earlier efforts such as "Flirting with Disaster," "I Heart Huckabees" and his darkly hilarious and genuinely angry Gulf War epic "Three Kings," seemed to have gone by the wayside as a result. This is not to say that the efforts of Russell V.2 are wanting by any means but I must confess that while the earlier films retain their boldness and brashness after multiple viewings over the years, the later efforts have not held up quite as well as a whole by comparison.

With "American Hustle," Russell seems determined to figure out a way to reconcile both sides of his filmmaking personality into a project in which the two approaches wind up complementing each other instead of clashing awkwardly and he has miraculously managed to pull off that considerable feat. Taking his inspiration from one of the odder American political scandals of the latter half of the 20th century, he has constructed a startling and incredibly entertaining film that combines the edgy humor and loose, improvisatory style of his earlier works with the cool professionalism and memorable performances of the latter. The end result is a hilarious jaw-dropper that is both Russell's finest and most daring work since "Three Kings" and one of the very best films of 2013.

The film takes its inspiration from Abscam, a sting operation from the late 1970's in which the FBI enlisted the aid of real-life con men to help them entrap crooked politicians by capturing them on hidden camera accepting bribes from phony Arab sheiks in exchange for certain favors. Our nominal hero is Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a con man who possesses both the least-convincing combover ever attempted in the history of mankind and the remarkable ability to manipulate his targets with such skill and dexterity that they are practically begging him to take their money from him in exchange for his dubious services. Along the way, he makes the acquaintance of glamourous Brit Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and instantly falls for her, a feeling that grows even deeper when she reveals herself to be just as skilled in the at of grifting as he is.

Together, they make a great team until they make a mistake and get busted by Richie DMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious Fed who is as tightly wound as the perm sitting atop his head, a coif so bizarre that it makes Irving's do seem downright staid by comparison. To get ahead at the Bureau, DiMaso needs to make some higher-profile busts and figures that he can use Irving's skills to help him out in exchange for dropping the charges against him and Sydney. Sydney is all for getting out of the country but Irving has an adopted son that he is unwilling to give up and he convinces her to stay and help him out. The plan is to introduce politicians who are known to be on the take to a faux Arab sheik (Michael Pena), film them accepting bribes and bust them cold. Before long, they settle on a target in Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a New Jersey mayor who seems eager to use his influence to get some seemingly shady casino deals going.

Thanks to Richie's ineptitude, the sting is blown almost right from the get-go but Irving manages to somehow gain Carmine's confidence and that is where his trouble really begins. Yes, Carmine is perfectly willing to stray from the letter of the law but what Irving realizes and Richie fails to see is that he is actually a genuinely decent guy who really wants to help serve his constituents and community by whatever means at his disposal and if that involves bending a few rules, so be it. As Irving is forced to pull Carmine deeper and deeper into Richie's web by trying to hook him up with mobsters, he feels worse and worse about what he is being asked to do and the fact that the smitten Richie is plainly putting the moves on Sydney does not help matters much. Adding to the complications is the presence of Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), Irving's live-wire wife-in-name-only who uses his love for her son as a way to endlessly manipulate him at every turn. Somehow, she gets caught up in the proceedings as well without every quite knowing what is going on and her unwillingness to follow anyone's lead but her own could prove disastrous for everyone involved.

Although largely forgotten today, the Abscam scandal is actually an ideal premise for a film--the conceit of feds and frauds forced to work together is undeniably appealing and the fact that few people remember much about it beyond the basics means that the material can still generate a certain amount of suspense amongst contemporary moviegoers--but "American Hustle" is not the straightforward and scrupulously researched take on the subject that it might have been in other hands. Instead, Russell and co-writer Eric Warren Singer are less interested in the nuts and bolts of the story as they are in using it as a springboard for a more freewheeling character study focusing on a group of people for whom duplicity is of such second-nature to them that the very notion of someone who is entirely honest and upfront about who they are is enough to drive them to distraction. Right from the very opening, in which Irving arranges his astounding hairdo and then takes us through the preparation for an upcoming scam, we are plunged into an area of society in which nothing is quite as it seems to be and those who are experts at reinventing themselves are the ones that will get the furthest ahead. Even Russell himself shows himself perfectly willing to do this as well by trading in the largely straightforward visual style of his previous films for a brasher and bolder take that is as close to Martin Scorsese as America was to Neil Young when they recorded their hit "A Horse with No Name," a song which is cheekily overheard on the soundtrack during those initial scenes.

The early scenes of "American Hustle," as Irving and Sydney find themselves using their skills to defraud people too greedy or desperate to realize they are being hustled and then revealing how the game is played to the eager-to-learn Richie (whose capacity for self-delusion is the equal of any of their former marks) are enormously entertaining--they move like a shot and provide any number of huge laughs--but it is during the second half that it quietly but effectively shifts from being brilliant but glib to just brilliant. As Irving gets to know Carmine, he is forced to look at him as not just a mark but as a decent guy whose descent into sleaze is inspired by the noblest of reasons and whose belief that he has found a genuine friend in Irving (even going so far as to gift him with a so-called "science oven") truly throws the con artist supreme for a loop. At the same time, Richie's increasing recklessness--including arranging a sit-down with a Mob kingpin (no fair revealing who) who only needs a second to recognize that he is being set up--puts him and Sydney in increasing danger that even they may not be able to talk themselves out of and all of these characters soon find themselves at the mercy of the loose cannon that is Rosalyn and her complete lack of artifice.

Russell recounts all of this in an endearingly loosey-goosey style that never conforms to the expected parameters of this kind of storytelling--this is the kind of thrillingly alive filmmaking that always keeps viewers on their toes throughout. If all of this is to work in a truly satisfactory manner, however, there have to be characters whom we in the audience are truly invested in despite their behavior and this is where "American Hustle" really shines thanks to a collection of amazing performances. Something about the role of Irving, for example, seems to have truly unleashed something in Christian Bale--beyond the astonishing lack of physical vanity he displays throughout, this is some of the most daring acting that he has done in his entire career in the way that he finds the humor in him without making him into a complete joke. Adams is similarly excellent in the way that she demonstrates the quiet intelligence burning beneath Sydney's sexy exterior and a late-inning scene in which she reveals the truth about herself underlines just how deeply felt her work is this time around. Cooper is hilariously sleazy as the ambitious Fed and Russell makes effective use of the smarmy persona that he has displayed in other films while Renner's performance as the central mark, although less flashy than the others, is the anchor that grounds the film because if we don't like and sympathize with him, the whole central conflict that makes up the heart of the film just falls apart.

There are a lot of great performances in "American Hustle," ranging from the leads to the smaller supporting turns, but the standout of the bunch comes from Jennifer Lawrence, whose previous collaboration with Russell in "Silver Linings Playbook" led to her Oscar win earlier this year. That was a great performance--possibly even one that made the surrounding film as a whole seem slightly better than it actually was--but her work her is even better. Every time she comes onto the screen, you sit up and take notice because her alternately silly and steely-eyed presence--imagine Carmella Soprano as played by Judy Holiday--is alternately alluring and terrifying (you can understand exactly what it is about her that both attracts and horrifies the comparatively orderly Irving) and, like the other characters, you have absolutely no idea of how she will act in any given situation. If Lawrence had not just won an Oscar, her performance here would be an absolute shoo-in for the Supporting Actress prize and I wouldn't exactly rule her out for a return trip to the podium to honor what she has done here. In other words, anyone who has been preparing for a backlash to set in against her anytime soon is just going to have to wait a little while longer.

"American Hustle" is a ridiculously ambitious high-wire act that is exciting, hilarious, politically astute, wonderfully acted, contains any number of amazing scenes throughout and reestablishes David O. Russell as one of the more audacious American filmmakers working today. This is a film that is awake and alive in every single frame and every time that you think that it is about to stumble, it instead goes off in a new and equally fascinating direction with a serene confidence in its abilities that it then proceeds to completely justify. There may well be a movie that tells the full and accurate story of Abscam at some point and it may even be a great film of its own but in terms of capturing the mindset of the people who would become ensnared in something so strange, it will be very difficult for it to top the achievements of this film.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=25193&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/19/13 13:32:20
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Berlin Film Festival For more in the 2014 Berlin Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/13/17 morris campbell the best con artist movie since The Sting 5 stars
8/21/14 MatthewThompsonDalldorf Would have been better had it actually gone somewhere and not been half filler 2 stars
7/25/14 Turner Generic with terrible pacing and overacting. Avoid. 1 stars
1/15/14 lee a bit long but fantastic acting and story line. 5 stars
1/12/14 The Big D A comedy without laughs; a satire without humor; a con game without a payoff--why bother? 2 stars
1/03/14 Langano Has a lot of good elements but doesn't mesh into a 5 star film. 4 stars
1/02/14 allyson becker Not impressed. Fair, but just wait and rent it! 3 stars
12/26/13 Koitus Eh - rent it. Only reason to see it is that Amy Adams doesn't wear a bra the whole movie! 3 stars
12/25/13 mr.mike Good acting but I left theatre thinking "so what?'. 3 stars
12/24/13 Chris Half as good as Casino (which wasn't great) 2 stars
12/23/13 gil carlson One of the best films of this year. Incredible cast. A 'must see'. 5 stars
12/23/13 The Rock scorcese wanna be rip off. Fuck O Russell 1 stars
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  13-Dec-2013 (R)
  DVD: 18-Mar-2014

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  DVD: 18-Mar-2014

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